Posts Tagged ‘Booksmart’

Any sensitive person would be forgiven a certain degree of wariness when it comes to the value of democracy nowadays – the track record of major votes in certain English-speaking countries over the past few years has not exactly been stellar. And so I permitted myself the odd moment of foreboding when, in the absence of an obvious candidate, the popular vote as to which film our happy little band should go to see on our weekly cinema trip went almost unanimously to Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, Booksmart. (Then again, the only other serious alternative – and I use the word ‘serious’ inaccurately – was Ryan Reynolds in Detective Pikachu, and, you know, frankly, no.)

You may have heard of Olivia Wilde; certainly, I can’t hear her name without thinking of a scene in Cowboys and Aliens with a bonfire, and another one from a film called Alpha Dog that has been widely shared on the internet… but I digress. I kind of get the impression that Cowboys and Aliens marked the end of her association with big, broad studio movies (though then again, she was in Rush, but I’d forgotten about that) and she’s been ploughing her own furrow doing a mixture of roles in lower-profile films and making documentaries. Booksmart, while maybe a bit too full-on to be entirely mainstream, is certainly a film aimed to appeal to a wide audience.

Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever play Molly and Amy, a couple of intelligent, dedicated, wide-awake young women just on the cusp of graduating from high school in the time-honoured fashion. Both of them have prioritised academic success over self-indulgent hedonism for the past four years and are feeling rather smug about it, accepting their reputation as a couple of joyless geeks is a reasonable price to pay for going to much better colleges than any of their peers.

Except… it doesn’t quite seem to have worked out that way. All their fun-loving, popular contemporaries also seem to be going to very good colleges, or taking other equally attractive routes in the next stage of their lives, despite having enjoyed themselves fully. Molly in particular is absolutely traumatised to learn this, finding it grossly unfair, and in an effort to redress this decrees that the two of them will be attending the biggest party they can find, there to behave wildly and prove that they are fun people to hang out with. (The fact that both of their crushes will also be attending may have something to do with this new resolution, too.) Amy is a bit less keen on this plan, but goes along with Molly as usual. There is of course the problem of how to actually get to a party they don’t know the location of, but they are, as they keep reminding themselves, officially the two smartest girls in school…

I know there are some readers of the blog who take a special interest in the views of my good friend Olinka about the films we end up going to see; some of them are not even Olinka herself. So I imagine that Olinka’s verdict of ‘That was terrible… I was cringing all the way through,’ will carry particular weight with them. I should quickly add that it is not Olinka’s view or mine that Booksmart is actually a bad film, just that it brilliantly and vibrantly depicts a teenage world of social embarrassment and self-inflicted disasters. This is, I would suggest, not a film for Granny, for it contains various scenes of drug abuse, heavy drinking, and minority strumpy-pumpy, all held together by a script with an F-bomb total probably heading for four figures.

You might think be thinking this sounds like a spiritual companion piece to Eighth Grade, which came out a few weeks ago – Twelfth Grade, maybe. Well, the two films do obviously have something in common, but whereas Eighth Grade was implicitly critical of modern society and almost felt quite bleak in places, Booksmart turns out to be a joyous, upbeat, very, very funny film. Certainly it does have things to say about modern society, and it does poke fun at some young people’s obsession with identity politics (not to mention nearly every other kind of politics). But these are friendly pokes, not mean-spirited at all; this is not a reactionary film, and it is firmly on the side of its protagonists.

Booksmart certainly belongs to a popular tradition of American high-school comedies, and I suppose it will be hailed as the first entry to the genre to be written and directed by and star women; well, this may be so, but as noted the film does not labour the point and remains notably light-footed throughout. This isn’t to denigrate the quality of the script, which is consistently pacy and clever throughout, and works as well as it does mainly because of the way it’s not afraid to be completely absurd. All of the characters are caricatures to some extent, but they’re written and played to the hilt by the cast, who know when to go big and when to rein it back for a moment of something approaching genuine emotion.

That’s the thing about Booksmart: I turned up expecting another loud, agitprop-y comedy more concerned with ticking the right political boxes than actually serving its story, and an hour in I realised I was watching something consistently funny, frequently over-the-top, highly inventive, and with a central relationship that was totally believeable and that I had somehow become honestly invested in. It’s the warmth and heart of Booksmart that pushes it over the line from good film to great film – it’s not just that you care about Molly and Amy, and feel for them when various social and personal disasters overtake them, although this is the case. This is a rare example of a film where pretty much every character eventually turns out to be a decent, likable human being – again, all credit to a cast which includes Jessica Williams as their class teacher, Skyler Gisondo as the class goon, and Billie Lourd as a drug-crazed free-spirit.

There are not many films I have come out of recently feeling quite as buoyant as I did after Booksmart. The phrase ‘instant classic’ gets tossed around fairly glibly these days, but in this case it does feel justified. It’s interesting that a film that wears its progressive credentials very lightly and simply concentrates on delivering solid laughs ends up feeling much more positive than any number of studiously right-on dramas and documentaries. Funny old world sometimes; but this is a very funny new film.

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